SF delegates reject motion over free vote on abortion

Toibin says ‘I’d rather wear a Dublin jersey on the streets of Navan’ than have this debate

Meath West TD Peadar Toibin who last night criticised the the whip system in Ireland. He said it exists nowhere else in a western democracy. ‘It’s illegal in some and anti-constitutional in others.’

Sinn Féin delegates voted by a comfortable majority last night against a motion allowing for freedom of conscience in voting on the issue of abortion.

Seventeen of the party’s cumainn supported the motion “this ardfheis agrees that all Sinn Féin members be allowed to articulate and vote on the issue of abortion according to their conscience”.

But during a well attended debate lasting almost 40 minutes more than 10 speakers expressed very divided views on the issue.

Meath West TD Peadar Toíbín, newly returned to the parliamentary party after losing the whip by voting last year against the party's position on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, supported the motion.


Mr Toibin said it was the last debate he wanted to have on his first week back in the fold.

“I’d rather nearly wear a Dublin jersey on the streets of Navan at 3 o’clock in the morning. But the motion is there and I believe in it with all my heart.”

But he said "the whip system in Ireland is an oddity, exists nowhere else in western democracy. It's illegal in some and anti-constitutional in others."

He said that “all this motion does is create space for people on both sides of the debate”.

Speaking for the party leadership, deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald “we cannot accept as a political party that we would not have a considered policy position on the matter”.

She said “we have to be in a position, notwithstanding the diversity of view and the passion within our ranks, to come to a considered view, and we have done that on this issue. The issue of protecting a woman’s life is not just a conscience issue, it’s a public health issue, it’s a social policy issue as is the issue of abortion itself.

“We could not have this party speaking out of both sides of its mouth on a crucial policy like that.”

Delegate Martin McGovern said in America recently four nuns who worked in a Catholic hospital and were excommunicated for taking part in the abortion of a dead foetus, but he said, not one paedophile priest had been excommunicated.

He said “this is a political question, not just a separate issue of your conscience”.

One anti-abortion delegate said that in the last two year’s attitudes in the party and this had left him and hundreds like him feeling they were “in a very cold house” in the party.

He told the conference “I don’t want to have to hide my views. I’m not asking you to change the policy but to allow me freedom of conscience to allow me and hundreds like me to stay in the party”.

Finian Twomey from Cork said they were not looking to change party policy but the right of conscience to vote for their beliefs. He said he was a practising Catholic. “This policy doesn’t equate with being a Catholic in this country.”

A Dungiven, Co Derry delegate said “we fully understand the need for party discipline but public representatives in a republican party should never be forced to choose between their party and their conscience”.

She added that “Ireland has traditionally been far more rigid in using the whip system than Britain, from where it was inherited. On this issue “we are more British than the British themselves”.

Dublin Cllr Micheal MacDonnchadh said the issue was about party democracy. “We either have a party that decides a policy and then its public representatives defend that policy or we don’t have a party at all.” He described the motion as disingenuous. “It makes no distinction between freedom of expression and freedom of conscience.”

Cork North-Central TD Jonathon O'Brien said he was pro-life but he believed it was essential for the credibility of the party to articulate one public position. There is plenty of room for differing views in this party but the party can only have one position.

Urging delegates to vote against the motion he said “it’s the right thing to do”.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times